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#37303 - 01/25/03 03:49 AM Paper on Combating Distorted Thinking
Gary - CDN Offline

Registered: 09/16/02
Posts: 28
Loc: Hamilton, Ontario Canada
As per the requests, here is the paper I have been working with. There are exercises at the end that I have left out but I did include the section on Coping with Anxiety.

Hope this helps,



A man walks up to a drugstore counter and asks for a pack of Camels. The clerk says they're out. The man concludes that the clerk had the cigarettes, but just wanted to get rid of him because he didn't like his looks. This "logic" seems obviously irrational and paranoid.

But consider the case of the woman whose husband comes home with a cloudy look on his face. She immediately concludes that he is angry because she was too tired to make love the previous night. She expects to be hurt now by some sort of retaliation and responds quickly by becoming peevish and defensive. This "logic" makes perfect sense to her and she does not question her conclusion until she learns that her husband had a minor auto accident on the way home.

The syllogism she used goes like this: "(1) My husband often gets upset when I disappoint him; (2) My husband looks upset; (3) Therefore I must have disappointed him." The problem with this logic lies in her assumptions that her husband's moods must all relate to her and that she is the prime cause of his ups and downs. This style of distorted thinking is called Personalization, the tendency to relate all the objects and events around you to yourself. It creates a great deal of pain because the victim consistently misinterprets what he or she sees and then acts on the misinterpretation.

This article will list and examine fifteen distorted thinking styles and give you practice identifying them. You will become alert to cues indicating the presence of distorted thinking in yourself and develop ways of combating it.

Much of human pain is unnecessary. It comes from faulty conclusions you have made about the world. It is your interpretations, what you say to yourself about your experience, that create anxiety, anger, and depression. If you decide that someone's sour look means rejection, when in fact the poor soul has heartburn, you are creating your own climate - and it is destined to be a sad or stormy one.

The two theorists who have contributed most to combating distorted thinking styles are Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. In his 1961 book, A Guide to Rational Living, Ellis argues that emotions have little to do with actual events. In between the event and the emotion is realistic or unrealistic "self talk". The emotion actually comes from what you say to yourself (your interpretation of the event) and not from the event itself. He uses an ABC model to describe how it works:

A. Facts and events –
A paperboy tosses the morning news on a customer's wet lawn. The customer runs out his front door and shouts down the block for him to be more careful.

B. Paperboy's self talk –
"This is bad...he might report me...they'll take my route away...I'm really screwing up...that guy's a real jerk...he hates kids."

C. Emotions –
Anxiety and anger.

The event itself did not cause the emotions. It was when the paperboy decided he was in danger, when he decided that he was "screwing up" and that his customer was a "jerk" that anxiety and anger were generated. If the paperboy later decided that everyone makes mistakes and no harm will come of it, his emotional response will be entirely changed.

Aaron Beck is a leading theorist in the treatment of depression. In his 1967 book, "Depression: Clinical, Experimental, and Theoretical Aspects", he describes how distorted thinking styles set off and exacerbate the downward spiral of depression. By correcting such thinking styles as overgeneralization and polarization the depressed person can begin climbing out of the pit. As his interpretations of the events around him change, so do his mood and attitude toward the future.


The Cognitive Therapy advocated by Beck and Ellis has proven effective in reducing the frequency and intensity of interpersonal and general anxiety, depression, chronic anger, and compulsive perfectionism.


An assessment of your distorted thinking styles takes several days, as you observe your thinking in a variety of stress situations. The habit of combating the distortions will take from two weeks to several months to become automatic.

1. Filtering

This distortion is characterized by a sort of tunnel vision - looking at only one element of a situation to the exclusion of everything else. A single detail is picked out and the whole event or situation is coloured by this detail. A draftsman who was uncomfortable with criticism was praised for the quality of his recent detail drawings and asked if he could get the next job out a little quicker. He went home depressed, having decided that his employer thought he was dawdling. He selected only one component of the conversation to respond to. He simply didn't hear the praise in his fear of possible deficiency.

Each person has his own particular tunnel to look through. Some are hypersensitive to anything that suggests loss, and are blind to any indication of gain. For others, the slightest possibility of danger sticks out like a barb in a scene that is otherwise warm with contentment. Depressed people select elements suggesting loss from their environment, those prone to anxiety select danger, and those who frequently feel angry select evidence of injustice.

The process of remembering can also be very selective. From your entire history and stock of experience, you may habitually remember only certain kinds of events. As a result, you may review your past and re-experience memories that characteristically leave you angry, anxious, or depressed.

By the very process of filtering you magnify and "awfulize" your thoughts when you pull negative things out of context, isolated from all the good experiences around you, you make them larger and more awful than they really are. The end result is that all of your fears, losses, and irritations become exaggerated in importance because they fill your awareness to the exclusion of everything else. Key words for this kind of filtering are "terrible... awful... disgusting... horrendous", and so on. A key phrase is "I can't stand it".

2. Polarized Thinking

The hallmark of this distortion is an insistence on dichotomous choices. You tend to perceive everything at the extremes, with very little room for a middle ground. People and things are good or bad, wonderful or horrible. This creates a black and white world and, because you miss all the nuances of grey, your reactions to events swing from one emotional extreme to another. The greatest danger in polarized thinking is its impact on how you judge yourself. If you aren't perfect or brilliant, then you must be a failure or an imbecile. There is no room for mistakes or mediocrity. A charter bus driver told himself he was a real loser when he took the wrong freeway exit and had to drive several miles out of his way.

A single parent with three children was determined to be strong and "in charge". The moment she felt tired or slightly anxious, she began thinking of herself as weak, felt disgusted with herself, and criticized herself in conversations with friends.

3. Overgeneralization

In this distortion you make a broad, generalized conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. One slipped stitch means "I'll never learn how to sew". A rejection on the dance floor means "Nobody would ever want to dance with me". If you got sick on a train once, never take a train again. If you got dizzy on a sixth floor balcony, never go out there again. If you felt anxious the last time your husband took a business trip, you'll be a wreck every time he leaves town. One bad experience means that whenever you're in a similar situation you will repeat the bad experience. This distortion inevitably leads to a more and more restricted life. Overgeneralizations are often couched in the form of absolute statements, as if there were some immutable law that governs and limits your chances for happiness. You are overgeneralizing when you absolutely conclude that "Nobody loves me...I'll never be able to trust anyone again...I will always be sad...I could never get a better job...No one would stay my friend if they really knew me. Your conclusion is based on one or two pieces of evidence and carefully ignores everything you know about yourself to the contrary. Cue words that indicate you may be over generalizing are; “ all, every, none, never, always, everybody, and nobody”.

4. Mind Reading

When you mind read you make snap judgements about others: "He's just acting that way because he's jealous...she's with you for your money... he's afraid to show he cares". There's no evidence, but it just seems right. In most instances, mind readers make assumptions about how other people are feeling and what motivates them. For example, you may conclude, "He visited her three times last week because he was (a) in love, (b) angry at his old girlfriend and knew she'd find out, (c) depressed and on the rebound, (d) afraid of being alone again." You can take your choice, but acting on any of these arbitrary conclusions may be disastrous.

As a mind reader, you also make assumptions about how people are reacting to things around them, particularly how they are reacting to you. "This close he sees how unattractive I am...she thinks I'm really immature...they're getting ready to fire me." These assumptions are usually untested. They are born of intuition, hunches, vague misgivings, or one or two past experiences, but they are nevertheless believed.

Mind reading depends on a process called projection. You imagine that people feel the same way you do and react to things the same way you do. Therefore, you don't watch or listen closely enough to notice that they are actually different. If you get angry when someone is late, you imagine everyone acts that way. If you feel excruciatingly sensitive to rejection, you expect most people to feel the same. If you are very judgmental about particular habits and traits, you assume others share your belief. Mind readers jump to conclusions that are true for them without checking whether they are true for the other person.

5. Catastrophizing

If you catastrophize, a small leak in the sailboat means it will surely sink. A contractor who gets underbid concludes he'll never get another job. A headache suggests that brain cancer is looming. Catastrophic thoughts often start with the words "what if". You read a newspaper article describing a tragedy or hear gossip about some disaster befalling an acquaintance. As a result you start wondering if it will happen to you. "What if I break my leg skiing...What if they hijack my plane...What if I get sick and have to go on disability...What if my son starts taking drugs?" The list is endless. There are no limits to a really fertile catastrophic imagination.

6. Personalization

Personalization is the tendency to relate everything around you to yourself. A somewhat depressed mother blames herself when she sees any sadness in her children. A recently married man thinks that every time his wife talks about tiredness she means she is tired of him. A man whose wife complains about rising prices hears the complaints as attacks on his abilities as a breadwinner.

A major aspect of personalization is the habit of continually comparing yourself to other people: "He plays piano so much better than I do...I'm not smart enough to go with this crowd...She knows herself a lot better than I do...He feels things so deeply while I'm dead inside...I'm the slowest person in the office...He's dumb (and I'm smart)...I'm better looking...They listen to her but not to me". The opportunities for comparison never end. The underlying assumption is that your worth is questionable. You are therefore continually forced to test your value as a person by measuring yourself against others. If you come out better, you have a moment's relief. If you come up short, you feel diminished.

The basic thinking error in personalization is that you interpret each experience, each conversation, each look as a clue to your worth and value.

7. Control Fallacies

There are two ways you can distort your sense of power and control. You can see yourself as helpless and externally controlled, or omnipotent and responsible for everyone around you.

Feeling externally controlled keeps you stuck. You don't believe you can really affect the basic shape of your life, let alone make any difference in the world. Everywhere you look you see evidence of human helplessness. Someone or something else is responsible for your pain, your loss, and your failure. They did it to you. You find it difficult to strive for solutions because they probably wouldn't work anyway. An extreme example of this fallacy is the person who walks through skid row wearing three diamond rings and a $500 watch. He feels helpless and resentful when he gets mugged. He can't imagine how he had anything to do with it. He was the passive victim. The truth of the matter is that we are constantly making decisions, and that every decision affects our lives. In some way, we are responsible for nearly everything that happens to us.

The opposite of the fallacy of external control is the fallacy of omnipotent control. If you experience this distortion, you feel responsible for everything and everybody. You carry the world on your shoulders. Everyone at work depends on you. Your friends depend on you. You are responsible for many people's happiness and any neglect on your part may leave them lonely, rejected, lost or frightened. You have to right all wrongs, fill every need, and balm each hurt. And if you don't, you feel guilty. Omnipotence depends on three elements: a sensitivity to the needs of people around you, an exaggerated belief in your power to fill those needs and the expectation that you, and not they, are responsible for filling those needs.

8. Fallacy of Fairness

This distorted thinking style hinges on the application of legal and contractual rules to the vagaries of interpersonal relations. The trouble is that two people seldom agree on what fairness is, and there is no court or final arbiter to help them. Fairness is a subjective assessment of how much of what one expected, needed, or hoped for has been provided by the other person. Fairness is so conveniently defined, so temptingly self-serving, that each person gets locked into his or her own point of view. The result is a sense of living in the trenches and a feeling of ever-growing resentment.

The fallacy of fairness is often expressed in conditional assumptions: "If he loved me, he'd do the dishes...if he loved me, he'd help me to orgasm...if this was a real marriage, she'd hike with me and learn to like it...if he cared at all, he'd come home right after work...if they valued my work here, they'd get me a nicer desk".

It is tempting to make assumptions about how things would change if people were only fair or really valued you. But the other person hardly ever sees it that way and you end up causing yourself a lot of pain.

9. Emotional Reasoning

At the root of this distortion is the belief that what you feel must be true. If you feel like a loser, then you must be a loser. If you feel guilty, then you must have done something wrong. If you feel ugly, then you must be ugly. If you feel angry, someone must have taken advantage of you.

All the negative things you feel about yourself and others must be true because they feel true. The problem with emotional reasoning is that emotions by themselves have no validity. They are products of what you think. If you have distorted thoughts and beliefs your emotions will reflect those distortions. Always believing your emotions is like believing everything you see in print.

10. Fallacy of Change

The only person you can really control or have much hope of changing is yourself. The fallacy of change, however, assumes that other people will change to suit you if you just pressure them enough. Your attention and energy are therefore focused on others because your hope for happiness lies in getting them to meet your needs. Strategies for changing others include blaming, demanding, withholding, and trading. The usual result is that the other person feels attacked or pushed around and doesn't change at all.

The underlying assumption of this thinking style is that your happiness depends on the actions of others. In fact, your happiness depends on the many thousands of large and small decisions you make during your life.

11. Global Labelling

Your supermarket stocks rotten food at rip-off prices. A person who refused to give you a lift home is a total jerk. A quiet guy on a date is labelled a dull clam. Conservatives are a bunch of money-hungry corporation toadies. Your boss is a gutless imbecile.

Each of these labels may contain a grain of truth. Yet it generalizes one or two qualities into a global judgement. The label ignores all contrary evidence, making your view of the world stereotyped and one-dimensional.

12. Blaming

There's such relief in knowing who's to blame. If you are suffering, someone must be responsible. You're lonely, hurt or frightened and someone provoked those feelings. A man got angry because his wife suggested he build the fence he'd been meaning to put up. She ought to have known how tired he was - she was being totally insensitive. The problem was that he expected her to be clairvoyant, to read his mind, when it was his responsibility to inform her of his fatigue and say no.

Blaming often involves making someone else responsible for choices and decisions that are actually your own responsibility. A woman blamed the butcher for selling hamburger that was always full of fat, but it was really her problem. She could have paid more for leaner meat or gone to a different butcher. In blame systems, somebody is always doing it to you and you have responsibility to assert your needs, say no, or go elsewhere for what you want.

Some people focus blame exclusively on themselves. They beat themselves up constantly for being incompetent, insensitive, stupid, too emotional, etc. They are always ready to be wrong. One woman felt she spoiled her husband's entire evening when she caused a fifteen-minute delay in getting to a party. Later when the party broke up early she decided that she had bored everybody.

13. Should

In this distortion, you operate from a list of inflexible rules about how you and other people should act. The rules are right and indisputable. Any deviation from your particular values or standards is bad. As a result, you are often in the position of judging and finding fault. People irritate you. They don't act right and they don't think right. They have unacceptable traits, habits, and opinions that make them hard to tolerate. They should know the rules and they should follow them. One woman felt that her husband should want to take her on Sunday drives. A man who loved his wife ought to take her to the country and then out to eat in a nice place. The fact that he didn't want to go meant that he "only thought about himself".

Cue words indicating the presence of this distortion are should, ought, or must. In fact, Albert Ellis has dubbed this thinking style "masturbation".

Not only are other people being judged, but you are also making yourself suffer with shoulds. You feel compelled to do something, or be a certain way, but never bother to ask objectively if it really makes sense. The famous psychiatrist Karen Horney called this the "tyranny of shoulds". Here is a list of some of the most common and unreasonable shoulds:

I should be the epitome of generosity, consideration, dignity, courage, unselfishness.

I should be the perfect lover, friend, parent, teacher, student, spouse etc.....
I should be able to endure any hardship with equanimity.
I should be able to find a quick solution to every problem.
I should never feel hurt, I should always be happy and serene.
I should know, understand, and foresee everything.
I should always be spontaneous and at the same time I should always control my feelings.
I should never feel certain emotions, such as anger or jealousy.
I should love my children equally.
I should never make mistakes.
My emotions should be constant - once I feel love I should always feel love.
I should be totally self-reliant.
I should assert myself and at the same time I should never hurt anybody else.
I should never be tired or get sick.
I should always be at peak efficiency.

14. Being Right

In this distortion you are usually on the defensive. You must continually prove that your viewpoint is correct, your assumptions about the world accurate, and all your actions correct. You aren't interested in the possible veracity of a differing opinion, only in defending your own. Every decision you make is right, every task you perform is done competently. You never make mistakes.

Your opinions rarely change because you have difficulty hearing new information. If the facts don't fit what you already believe you ignore them.

An auto mechanic got in the habit of stopping at the bar for three or four drinks on the way home. Frequently he got in after seven and his wife never knew when to have dinner ready. When she confronted him he got angry and said that a man has a right to relax. She had it soft while he was pulling off cylinder heads all day. The mechanic had to be right and couldn't comprehend his wife's viewpoint. Having to be right makes you very hard of hearing. It also makes you lonely because being right seems more important than an honest, caring relationship.

15. Heaven's Reward Fallacy

In this framework for viewing the world you always do the "right thing" in hope of a reward. You sacrifice and slave, and all the while imagine that you are collecting brownie points that you can cash in some day.

A housewife cooked elaborate meals for her family and did endless baking and sewing. She drove her children to all their after-school activities. The house was immaculate. She carried on for years, all the while waiting for some kind of special reward or appreciation. It never came. And she became increasingly hostile and bitter. The problem was that while she was doing the "right thing" she was physically and emotionally bankrupting herself. She had become a crab and no one wanted to be around her.

To cope with the Anxiety

1. Accept the anxiety: Agree to receive your anxiety. Don't forget it. Replace your rejection, anger, fear and hatred of it with acceptance.

2. Remind yourself that, in time, it will go. We can't push it along but must accept it and be patient – it will go in its own good time.

3. Remind yourself that you can cope, live, function with high anxiety. You have had it a long while and you can live with it a while longer.

4. Act with the anxiety: Normalize the situation as much as possible. Slow down if you have to but keep going. Breathe slowly and normally.

5. Watch your anxiety. You are not your anxiety. Rate it on a scale of 1-10 (Dissociation).

6. Become aware of your typical irrational thoughts. Counter these thoughts with the thoughts you have learned in group:

Irrational thought

"Oh God, my heart is racing."
"I can't stand this."
"I'll be this way all my life."

Coping thought

"I've been medically checked, my heart is OK"
"I can cope with anxiety."
Take a day at a time: get through today."

7. Replace Mental Images: Rather than seeing yourself wheeled into the Emergency Room or fainting on the floor, imagine you are at the group and see the room we meet in, the face, etc. Or you might put the image of yourself into the past at a safe and relaxing time in your life.

8. Make use of the relaxation strategies you have learned in group.

9. Do some deep breathing.

10. Use activity and distraction: Let your anxiety accompany you while you visit a friend, do some crafts, etc.

11. Remind yourself that although the symptoms of stress are not pleasant, they will not harm you. With acceptance and relaxation these symptoms will, in time, go. Some are stubborn and can linger a while, but eventually the muscles relax away the symptom.

12. Expect the best. What you fear the most rarely happens. How many times have you worried and worried - for no reason? Don't be surprised the next time you have anxiety - you will! Instead surprise yourself - by how well you can handle it.

#37304 - 01/28/03 01:01 AM Re: Paper on Combating Distorted Thinking
Gary - CDN Offline

Registered: 09/16/02
Posts: 28
Loc: Hamilton, Ontario Canada
Well guys, just a quick note on some self discovery this weekend.

My stress levels peaked Saturday night at work and some images / memories came back that might be the root cause of my distorted thinking. My view on life, can at times, over-generalize things and lead to some severe catastrophic thinking. In my last episode, I hit bottom and was not thinking straight for days. After reading the paper I posted followed by a note from my counselor, things started to gel. The key from the counselor was that the feelings I was experiencing were historical. So why was I terrified and why were things so blown out of proportion?

As I mentioned, during the drive home on Saturday night a few images /memories came back to haunt me. In my life, besides the SA, there was some fairly tough corporal punishment in the home. My first image was me a as child, maybe 4-5 years old, walking down the street to the house deathly afraid of the beating I was going to get because I went into a farm field I was told to stay out of. A little boy terrified and crying at that age is inexcusable and if I can remember the beatings then, how old was I when they started? Another incident came back and I was just a bit older. On the way home one day I was cornered by some bigger kids and pushed to the ground into some dog shit. Getting pushed around and beaten was the least of my worries. I remember walking home terrified of the beating I was going to get because my pants were dirty.

As for the beatings, my Dad had a strap that sat on top of the refrigerator. When I was bad, I would be held down over his knee with my pants around my knees and the strap was wailing on my bare ass. Imagine getting beaten because you went into the wrong field or got pushed around by someone else.

Damn, this pissed me off Saturday night. All this crap we carry with us for what. Beaten and humiliated as small children for almost nothing. No wonder at times my thinking is distorted and I expect the worse to happen in certain situations. Seems like its all happened before !!!

Anyway, we march on. I just have to learn how to spot the twists and turns and not give into the negative feelings.

Always keeping a good thought,


#37305 - 01/28/03 05:57 PM Re: Paper on Combating Distorted Thinking
michaelb Offline

Registered: 04/21/01
Posts: 211
Loc: cincinnati, ohio
Repeating the past is a very scarey thing.....i think this article is really good and i too am making a copy for future reference...My therapist tells me i have magical thinking and in many ways i see that distorted thought process in your article...

I guess most people outgrow magical thinking in early childhood, 4-7 years old.....but here i am in my mid 40's still thinking and behaving as if i were 3 years old...guess i'm still stuck at that emotional level because that is when the bad stuff really started happening....bad part is it really has never stopped......michael

#37306 - 01/29/03 12:01 AM Re: Paper on Combating Distorted Thinking
Lloydy Offline
Administrator Emeritus
Registered: 04/17/02
Posts: 7071
Loc: England Shropshire
the magical thinking might never go away, I don't think mine has entirely.

But I'm making it work FOR me now.
My imagination ran riot for over 30 years with all kinds of fantasy and distorted thinking, it's what kept me alive.

Now, I'm altering those thoughts but still using my imagination to dream of where I want to be, REALLY want to be. I try to think ahead instead of sideways or backwards.

It's not easy, but it comes with practice.

One 'new' magical thought at a time.


And that's a great article Gary, I've printed that out toread again, thanks.

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.
Henry David Thoreau


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